Stepping on board the 190-passenger “longship” Viking Aegir in Amsterdam for a 2-day sampler cruise, we found ourselves immersed in a bright and airy environment about as far from stodgy old river boats as contemporary pop music is to the waltz. Natural light fills the sky-lit atrium—so much so that real flowers grow in planters. Soft-toned Scandinavian decor entices passengers to sit and relax. A tall wooden staircase accented with back-lit panels adds a touch of drama.
Passengers will be impressed even before they get to see the ship’s key features including a large number of cabins with verandahs and a stunning cafe with indoor/outdoor seating. The “longship” moniker pays tribute to ancient ships of yore, but this is clearly river cruising 21st century style.
taking over the rivers of europe
Last year, Viking officials made much to do about their simultaneous christening of four new longships, all named for Norse gods and designed to do no less than revolutionize cruising on Europe’s rivers—in particular the Danube, Rhine and Main.
In March, the world’s largest river cruise company accomplished the eye-popping feat of christening 10 more of the German-built ships, including the Aegir, in a joint ceremony in Amsterdam—complete with drummers in Viking hats and young girls in traditional Dutch costumes handing scissors to 10 godmothers, who cut ribbons sending champagne bottles smashing.
In addition to the Aegir, the newly christened ships are the Viking Atla, Viking Bragi, Viking Embla, Viking Forseti, Viking Jarl, Viking Rinda, Viking Skadi, Viking Tor and Viking Var.
Never mind that six of the ships were still at the shipyard in Rostock (the champagne smashing shown in Amsterdam via live video). Guinness World Records declared a new record for most ships inaugurated in one day—eight of the ships counting towards the official record as two had actually hit the water last year.
Godmothers included Lady Fionna Carnarvon of Highclere Castle, the grand house seen on “Downton Abbey.” Viking has gained considerable buzz for its sponsorship of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, featuring the show.
Viking chairman Torstein Hagen told a crowd of 700 at the ceremony that the “longships” were nearly sold out for the season—an achievement he said he himself could hardly believe. “We’re having a phenomenal rate of growth,” he said.
Founded in 1997 and now with 35 ships, the company has a 44 percent share of the market—and growing. Hagen announced that a dozen more “longships” are planned to debut next year and he’d like to see 100 ships in the water by 2020.
With a goal of adding more outdoor space, the designers of the Viking Aegir and its sister longships had to rethink the very structure of river ships. Size on Europe’s rivers is limited to being able to fit under low bridges and into narrow locks. Going taller or longer was not an option.
Look at a schematic of the longships and you’ll see the hallways are actually skewed to one side to make way for verandahs on the other—though you aren’t aware of this when you’re on board. To create room for the Aquavit Terrace, the indoor/outdoor cafe, the traditional pointy bow of river ships was scrapped in favor of a snub-nose—like on a sperm whale.
The engines got a redo, too. The Aegir and its sister ships run with hybrid diesel-electric engines that bring a number of “green” advantages including a cleaner, quieter ride. Solar panels on deck help fuel the engines. Hagen said the cost efficiency of the patented design lets him sell cabins at 15 percent less than competitors.
dining, including al fresco
On the Aegir you quickly discover the place to hang out at mealtime on a sunny day is the Aquavit Terrace.
The conservatory-style room in the ship’s bow has a glass ceiling and sides that open, leading to true al fresco dining with views. For those who eschew sun or breezes there is indoor seating as well as a few tables spilling into the adjacent lounge.
Lunch here is from a streamlined buffet. The cafe is also open most nights for those who want to skip a multi-course meal in the main restaurant in favor of a pub-style meal. The Viking Restaurant a deck below is the venue for more traditional dining—with views via glass windows on two sides. Dining here is a leisurely, social event with open seating and three meals a day at set times.
A buffet area in the center of the room features a good variety of offerings at breakfast and lunch—though guests also have the option of ordering off a set menu. Dinner is typically at 7 p.m., the menu offering up a choice of several hot and cold appetizers and three entrees as well as always-available options including grilled salmon and New York-cut steak.
Soups are the standout, with such delicious concoctions as roasted tomato and artichoke.
While a number of ships in Europe have French balconies—glass doors leading to a narrow ledge—the “longships” bring the ocean cruising-like advantage of cabins with real verandahs.
On 39 cabins and seven Veranda Suites, the outdoor spaces are big enough for two mesh chairs and a small drinks table (the Veranda Suites also have a French balcony in the separate bedroom). These are lovely places to privately enjoy passing views. Another 22 cabins have French balconies, and standard cabins have views through portholes.
At the top end, two 445-sq.-ft. Explorer Suites are the largest real suites on any river ships in Europe. The verandah on these is wraparound and large enough to have another couple over for cocktails; plus the bedroom has a French balcony.
All the cabins offer decor in subtle colors with particularly thoughtful lighting including dimmers. They come with all sorts of niceties including hotel-like beds with fluffy white duvets, glass door showers, L’Occitane bath products and flat-screen TVs with CNN and movies on demand. There’s a mini-fridge, safe, and fresh fruit bowl, along with complimentary bottled water.
As on most river ships, public rooms are limited, though even here Viking is ahead of the pack with cozy little nooks indoors and out, perfect for reading a book or checking e-mails—thanks to complimentary WiFi. The spacious Viking Lounge on the Upper Deck is the ship’s hub, with a nice wooden bar with stools near the entrance, a dance floor, plenty of plush seating and the Aquavit Terrace at the far end.
A resident pianist plays tunes on the grand piano during a nightly cocktail hour and a combo band plays some nights for dancing. The lounge is also equipped as a movie venue with drop-down screens and surround sound. The foyer serves as a hangout spot with a few computer stations, comfy seating areas and self-service coffee machines where guests can make their own lattes and cappuccinos 24 hours a day.
For 360-degree views head up to the open sundeck, which runs across the entire length of the ship. Loungers, chairs and tables are located both in the sun and under canopies for shade. Two putting greens, shuffleboard and a giant chess set offer outdoor entertainment. Or take a stroll past the ship’s organic herbal garden.
Viking made a strategic decision not to add a gym, pool or spa on its ships, but guests have access to health facilities at luxury hotels en-route. A glass elevator makes the two main decks easily accessible to those with mobility issues—but does not go up to the sundeck.
WHAT TRAVEL AGENTS ARE SAYING…
A big fan of the longships is Vicky Garcia, COO of CruisePlanners-American Express Travel.
“I like the modern, open airy feel, light colors, no pretentiousness,” she said at the christening in March. “And since [the ships] all look alike, you can sell this to anybody. Wherever you want to go there’s a Viking longship there.”
Garcia says the mistake a lot of agents make is thinking the ships are only for older clients.
“I am in my mid-40s and people might think that’s young for river cruises, but it’s a great thing for people my age who have done other things. Bring a few couples with you, some friends with you. Last year we sailed with 20 of us and had a great time,” Garcia said.
First-timers on rivers tend to want to do the Danube, she said, but then they are hooked and can be sold on other itineraries. A key factor in selling is the destination focus of river cruises, she added. Get off the ship, and you’re in the city-center.
The Viking “longships” cruise European waterways including the Rhine, Main and Danube. Fares include excursions, soft drinks and house wine or beer at lunch and dinner. There is some space available on fall cruises, including the popular 8-day Romantic Danube itinerary, with fares from $1,756 pp, which includes port charges, WiFi, meals, lectures, activities and shore excursions.
Viking River Cruises: (800) 706-1483; vikingrivercruises.com